We first learned of microplastics when National Geographic wrote of the impact of it on the human body. A few months later, there was news of the fish in the Vaal River being prone to microplastics. Seafood is a large source of nutrients for the human body and brain, so what are the implications of microplastics being found in our food and is it a concern to the human body?
Dr Gideon Idowu, an Environmental Chemist at Nigeria’s Federal University of Technology Akure (FUTA), is taking stock of a massive research project across eight African countries. To understand the impact of microplastic pollution in marine and riverine systems.
Microplastics have infiltrated almost all environments and organisms. And the debris kills more than a million seabirds and 100 000 marine mammals annually.
Here, Dr Gideon Idowu talks to MH about investigating the effects of microplastics, not only in the environment but also in the human body amongst other species.
What is the potential impact of Microplastics?
The OECD forecast last year (2022) that by 2060 fossil-fuel-based plastics would amount to 1,2 billion tonnes. And waste to exceed one billion tons. Microplastics have infiltrated almost all environments and organisms, and the debris, says the OECD, kills more than a million seabirds and 100 000 marine mammals annually.
What is the potential human impact of your research?
“While we were at the Osun River to take samples for our laboratory investigations. We witnessed how a man came to a section of the river, stripped himself naked and bathed in the obviously polluted water for about an hour. And just 50 metres downstream of this man were young fishermen catching fish, which they were going to sell to the public. We are also carrying out human health risk assessments of exposure to MPs as part of the project. It dawned on us that these risks are real. That a full-grown adult was ‘joyfully’ bathing in a heavily plastic-polluted river was not something we had expected to see.”
Dr Gideon Idowu, an Environmental Chemist at Nigeria’s Federal University of Technology Akure (FUTA)
It gets worse, doesn’t it?
Not only that but what was expected to be a simple task of getting sediment samples proved to be difficult. “What we observed at Osun River was beyond expectation. We needed to take sediment samples (the soil at the bottom of the flowing river). At two out of the five sampling locations on the river, we struggled to reach the soil at the bottom. This was because everything we were lifting up was plastic instead of soil. We tried and tried and all the device was bringing up were plastic items and plastic debris. I’m talking of sections as wide as 50 metres. And it took us two hours to get a little soil from the bottom because everything we lifted was plastic. It was either a decaying carpet or clothing or sack or bag. It was just plastic everywhere!”
This is scary and it’s not unique to Nigeria, tell us which other countries are involved in your research.
The countries involved are Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Morocco, DR Congo, Tanzania and Kenya. There had originally been 12 countries due to participate in the study, however, four of them could not continue due to various reasons, e.g. governmental policy prohibiting them from receiving external research funding.
Career scientists and their collaborators often need funding, how do you go about securing it?
We have made funds available to collaborators in each of the countries. So they get the needed resources to execute aspects of the project they have been invited to contribute to. The collaborators have all made significant progress with their work and I am in regular contact with them. However, I can only make this possible due to the funding I secured from the JWO Research Grant.
Once you have the funding, how does one start?
The process of setting up the research involves many things. We have to look at the set of experiments/field work that we need to do over a period of time. Source materials and persons required to execute them. For instance, we need to procure relevant laboratory equipment. And I can say that we have gotten most of the ones needed for now. Extra men are often needed during equipment procurement and installations, field exercises (e.g. drivers, skipper/boat persons) and analytical lab consultancies. So, pretty much, we have done our field campaigns for the first year of the project and some key experiments have been set up and now running. Two PhD students have also been recruited for the project, and they are both doing fine on their assigned tasks.” There are also three MSc students on the project.
Safety is an overriding concern for all involved. “For aspects of our work involving laboratory experiments,” says Dr Idowu, we follow the regular safety precautions: use of protective lab wears, safety hoods and cabinets, avoiding lone working in the lab, etc. And for the fieldwork, especially those involving sampling on water bodies, both marine/lagoon and freshwater, we make sure we arrange for appropriate vessels to convey the project teams.
Should Africans be concerned about the effects of microplastics ultimately affecting our bodies?
Beyond the unaesthetic scenes that plastic wastes create in the environment, we want to provide evidence of the effects in releasing microplastics and endocrine disrupting chemicals, which potentially impair growth and reproduction in species,” he says.
Dr Idowu hopes that his research will inspire governments not only to enforce anti-pollution laws but that more African countries will follow in the footsteps of Rwanda and Kenya, which have banned single-use plastic bags. “We hope the outcomes of this project will be welcomed by people across Africa and create a movement of attitude change in the way we dispose of our plastics,” says Dr Idowu.